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Dido, Queen of Carthage

Style + Substance = Engrossing Theater

By Christopher Marlowe
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.,
Sunday, April 1, 2012, D 5-6 (middle stalls)
Actors’ Renaissance Season

Let’s talk Hamlet a moment. Even with all its intrigue, singular characters, and great lines, one of that play’s most thrilling moments on the stage is the Player King’s speech on Hecuba and the fall of Priam. It is a stylized speech, and the best actors give it a lion’s roar of a reading: formal in presentation but emitting a passion from deep within. Even in the context of Hamlet, it is an archaic presentation, but nevertheless it can be—and so I’ve seen it—the emotional highlight of the play.

But just 10 years or so before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, such stylized plays by the young Christopher Marlowe were all the rage of London’s stages. Dido, Queen of Carthage, was one of those plays, and while the form was already going out of fashion a half dozen years after its writing, it still can be, even today, a powerful spectacle when played by actors who respect the verse and do duty to the form. It’s like watching soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at a formal dinner, wearing their mess dress uniforms and ramrod in posture, honoring the formalities and paying genuine respect to the customs and traditions. These men and women don’t dress and behave like that normally, but the dress and behavior is required of such a formal event and in turn makes the event special. Such is Marlowe; your heart will swell with the moment as your soul admires the art, similar to opera, if you accept the form.

Thus is this play in its entirety. It works well when you have actors the caliber of Sarah Fallon in the title role and René Thornton Jr. as Aeneas, the Trojan hero who is shipwrecked on her Carthage’s shore, becomes her lover, then leaves her to continue his voyage to Italy to found Rome. The opening scene features the gods discussing Aeneas’s fate, and Jupiter (Benjamin Curns) tells Venus (Allison Glenzer), who happens to be Aeneas’ mother (hence the reason he qualifies as a hero in the mythological hierarchy), how Aeneas’ future will play out. From the start, then, we know Aeneas is going to jilt Dido: it’s preordained. Marlowe’s skill in the telling is showing us how the inevitable unfolds for both lovers, and he uses his formal style of blank verse to make those passions all the more profound.

We get our first real taste of this when Aeneas recounts for Dido the fall of Troy. Thornton (who, by the way, expertly played the Player King in ASC’s Hamlet last year) spoke the 160-line speech as an extended aria, addressing not just the queen’s court on stage but us Carthaginians in the audience. In this speech, Aeneas gets graphic describing the horrors that occurred as the Greeks sacked Troy and killed King Priam, and Thornton drilled these images into our conscience by the force of his rhetorical power and the catches in his voice when the recollection of what he’s recounting overwhelmed him. I’ve seldom heard such silence in a packed theater before as was maintained from beginning to end of this speech; a pin drop would have sounded like a buffalo stampede, so intently was the audience hanging on Thornton’s every stylized, formally delivered verse.

Fallon’s Dido got her even bigger turn in the play’s second half, but only after first establishing her stature as the world’s most desired queen in the first half. Any actress playing this part has the same challenge as actresses playing Helen in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In that one, the actress needs to portray history's most beautiful woman, the face that launched a thousand ships; in this one, the actress must show us a woman of equal contemporary fame to Helen with royal awe, to boot, a queen courted by just about every king in the known world (Fallon’s Dido shared her impressive scrapbook of lovers with Aeneas and his crew). Judging by the audible breath-catches in the audience, Fallon succeeded in establishing Dido’s reputed beauty with her first entrance, wearing a double-slit, sleeveless white gown with gold stripes, her hair done up in a crowning curl that complemented her gold diadem. Additionally, her very bearing was enticing, the way she glided down stage, the way she carried her head and held her arms, and, later, the way she subtly sashayed her hips as she floated off stage.

It is from this state of confidence and competence that Fallon’s Dido slowly unraveled after, with some touches from Cupid, she fell head-over-heels in love with Aeneas. Of course, he reciprocates: I mean, look at her! And so she ranged from being as giddy as a Beiber fan to dangerously possessive as Alex Forest. As Aeneas, who, by the way, vowed to never leave Dido, increasingly felt the call of Italia pulling him away, Fallon’s Dido became ever more frantically clingy.

Finally, Mercury appears to Aeneas telling him Jupiter commands that he get on with his destiny, and so he takes his firm farewell of Dido. He must not “gainsay the gods' behest,” he tells her. “The gods?!” Fallon’s Dido shouted back at him. “What gods be those that seek my death? Wherein have I offended Jupiter that he should take Aeneas from mine arms?” Fallon made this the foundation of her climactic speech of some 200 lines, pleading with Aeneas to stay but knowing full well any argument and every emotion she can cast at him is futilely delivered. He remains silent, and Thornton emphasized that silence by remaining absolutely still. “Why star'st thou in my face?” she finally said, emotionally spent. “If thou wilt stay, leap in mine arms. Mine arms are open wide. If not, turn from me, and I'll turn from thee, for though thou hast the heart to say farewell, I have not power to stay thee.” As heartbreaking as Fallon delivered these lines, the scene’s emotional grip ratcheted up several notches as Thornton’s Aeneas silently walked to the door, paused to look back a moment (her back to him), then slammed the door behind him. “Is he gone?” Fallon cried, bringing all eyes back on her. And with that she descended into the distraction that leads to her character’s tragic demise at play’s end.

This production belongs almost wholly to the tragic lovers at the center of the play and the two actors—who have performed in many memorable couplings at the Blackfriars—playing them. Still, some other performances were also worth noting. Along with playing Dido’s sister, Anna (pining for the love of Iarbus, who jilts her even after Dido jilts him) and Mercury (with huge wings extending from her back), Brandi Rhome played Juno, and in her lone scene facing off against Venus established herself in her stern demeanor and biting voice as the scourge of Aeneas and the only entity that could make Jupiter, her husband, nervous. Gregory Jon Phelps played Cupid as a silly brat, but this actor’s true talents emerged when Cupid moved about disguised as Aeneas’s son, Ascanius (Miriam Donald). Rather than have Donald play Cupid in disguise, Cupid was himself and the rest of the cast saw him as Ascanius, and to carry out the illusion Phelps mimicked Donald in posture, movement, facial expressions, and manner of speech. Among the mortals, Daniel Kennedy made a boon companion of Achates, Aeneas’ second in command, who displayed utmost admiration for his general but behind-the-back head-shaking annoyance every time Aeneas, falling to Dido’s wiles, recanted his decision to sail on to Italia.

Temporarily captured as Aeneas was by her, Dido was eternally captured by him. Together, Fallon’s Dido and Thornton’s Aeneas captured us. Their performances were a lesson in making Marlowe’s plays the kind of dramatic works that so influenced Shakespeare in the first place. Yet, theirs was a pair of performances that made us forget we were getting a Marlovian lesson, instead wrapping us up entirely in the tragic tale of Dido, Queen of Carthage, jilted by her Trojan lover, Aeneas, and his gods.

Eric Minton
April 4, 2012

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